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The 13 Best Commencement Speeches of All Time Ever (Recently) So Far

Ahhh yes: graduation season. What is it about those myriad speeches made to America’s Most Hungover Young Adults, shining a beacon of light and hope on their potential, hypothetical futures. This middle part of the year where America’s youth — so full of aspiration; starry-eyed opportunity-seekers and world-changers all — put a square piece of cardboard and some tassel-y bits on their head and parade towards uncomfortable plastic lawn chairs, ready to get the heck out of college, officially. All of this begs for a bit of imparted wisdom from someone far more experienced and wise: the commencement speaker.

Every year, more and more very good, very emotion-driven speeches are added to the pile, bringing with them their own unique brand of “reach for the stars!”-ness and the like. But not every one of them is a hit. And not every one of them is great. But surely — everyone could use a bit of a reminder as to what it is that made us all so excited and determined those many years ago. So where does one look to figure out what version of video-based inspiration might work for you? YouTube? Nay: this post, of course! We’ve filled it up with some of our favorite commencement addresses ever (OK, that we could find on YouTube) from recent history and put them in handy-dandy list form, below.

J.K. Rowling @ Harvard, 2008

“So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

Stephen Colbert @ Northwestern, 2011

“Now there are very few rules to improvisation, but one of the things I was taught early on is that you are not the most important person in the scene. Everybody else is. And if they are the most important people in the scene, you will naturally pay attention to them and serve them. But the good news is you’re in the scene too. So hopefully to them you’re the most important person, and they will serve you. No one is leading, you’re all following the follower, serving the servant. You cannot win improv. And life is an improvisation. You have no idea what’s going to happen next and you are mostly just making things up as you go along.”

Patti Smith @ Pratt, 2010

“We might ask ourselves, what tools do we have? What can we count on? You can count on yourself. Believe me, your self is your best ally. You know who you are, even when sometimes it becomes a little blurry and you make mistakes or seem to be veering off, just go deeper. You know who you are. You know the right thing to do. And when you make a mistake, it’s alright — just as the song goes, pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and start all over again.”

Steve Jobs @ Stanford, 2005

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. … Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”

Conan O’Brien @ Dartmouth, 2011

“There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized. Whether you fear it or not, true disappointment will come but with disappointment comes clarity, conviction and true originality.”

Mindy Kaling @ Harvard Law, 2014

“And now, with this diploma in hand, most of you will go on to the noblest pursuits, like helping a cable company acquire a telecom company. You will defend BP from birds. You will spend hours arguing that the well water was contaminated well before the fracking occurred. One of you will sort out the details of my pre-nup. A dozen of you will help me with my acrimonious divorce. And one of you will fall in love in the process. I’m talking to you, Noah Feldman!”

David Foster Wallace @ Kenyon College, 2005

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing. And I submit that this is what the real, no-shit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about. How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.”

Joss Whedon @ Wesleyan, 2013

“You have, which is a rare thing, the ability and the responsibility to listen to the dissent in yourself. To at least give it the floor. Because it is the key, not only to consciousness, but to real growth. To accept duality is to earn identity, and identity is something that you are constantly earning. It is not just ‘who you are,’ it is a process that you must be active in. And it’s not parroting your parents or even the thoughts of your learned teachers, it is, now more than ever, about understanding yourself so you can become yourself.”

Neil Gaiman @ UArts, 2012

“I hope you’ll make mistakes. If you’re making mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something. And the mistakes in themselves can be useful.…Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art. Make it on the good days too.”

Meryl Streep @ Barnard, 2010

“As Jung said, emotion is the chief source of becoming conscious. There can be no transforming of lightness into dark of apathy into movement without emotion. Or as Leonard Cohen says pay attention to the cracks because that’s where the light gets in. You, young women of Barnard have not had to squeeze yourself into the corset of being cute or to muffle your opinions but you haven’t left campus yet. I’m just kidding.”

Randy Pausch @ Carnegie Mellon, 2008

“We don’t beat the Grim Reaper by living longer, we beat the Reaper by living well and living fully, for the Reaper will come for all of us. The question is what do we do between the time we are born and the time he shows up. It’s too late to do all the things that you’re gonna kinda get around to. You will need to find your passion. Don’t give up on finding it because then all you’re doing is waiting for the Reaper. You will not find your passion in things and you will not find your passion in money. The more things and the more money you have, the more you will look around and use that as the metric and there will be someone with more. Your pasion must come from the things that fuel you from the inside. Honors and awards are nice things, but only to the extent that they regard the real respect from your peers.”

Jonathan Franzen @ Kenyon, 2011
Though there is no longer audio of the speech (there used to be, sniff sniff), an excerpted bit was published in The New York Times. (You can read the whole thing here.)

“The simple fact of the matter is that trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships. Sooner or later, for example, you’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight, and you’ll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don’t like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person. Something realer than likability has come out in you, and suddenly you’re having an actual life.”

Nora Ephron @ Wellesley, 1996

“Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women. Thank you. Good luck. The first act of your life is over. Welcome to the best years of your lives.”

Which speech was your favorite? Think of any others we may have missed? Let’s hear ‘em in the comments.

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